What kind of party do we need?

December 2, 2011

One of the most pressing--and controversial--questions to face socialists over the decades is how they should organize together. Ahmed Shawki is the editor of the International Socialist Review, author of the book Black Liberation and Socialism and member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) since its founding in 1977. He spoke on the question of revolutionary organization at the Socialism 2006 conference in New York City. This speech first appeared in the June 30, 2006, issue of Socialist Worker.

WHAT I want to discuss is what kind of party we want, and here, I'm not talking about a party other than a socialist party and an organization seeking to become a party, like the ISO. I'm not here to deal with the so-called opposition in this country--the Democrats or any such formation.

This is meant to be a discussion of some of the theory and ideas and traditions that lie behind our thinking as socialists and Marxists of what kind of organizational norms and organizations we need to develop to be the most effective we can possibly be in the fight against this system and the fight against capitalism. What kind of norms and political positions such a party should take, how it should be organized and the like.

I believe that there are three reasons that this question is important. The first is to explain some of the historical background that lies behind the approach we take in building organization.

Second, because we also have to face reality and say that the kind of party we want today was once wanted by much larger sections of the left and is no longer part of their outlook.

V.I. Lenin (center) and Leon Trotsky (right) in discussions after the Russian Revolution
V.I. Lenin (center) and Leon Trotsky (right) in discussions after the Russian Revolution

We have to have some explanation as to what happened to the radicalization the last time, and what ideas flow out of the defeated period of radicalization. There was a crescendo, an impasse, and then a decline and a stepping back of the left, with a number of ideas coming into prominence that reject the idea of political organization or political party. This is a crisis that still plagues sections of the revolutionary left today.

Thirdly, the question of what kind of party to build today is taking on particular forms internationally and, I believe, has spilled over into this country. There is now a discussion among sections of the revolutionary left internationally of creating broad, anti-capitalist parties as one strategy, and of contending for electoral advances as a major focus of energy. There are a number of options like that which I think we need to take some stock of.

It's a broad topic, and of course, it's main importance is to promote the discussion and understanding of what we're trying to do in the United States--what its problems are and what its potential development is.

FIRST, ON the question of political parties and political representation. Ever since the birth of the Marxist wing of the socialist movement, though not exclusively the Marxist wing, there has been a premium placed on the question of the political representation of the working class.

If you read the earliest writings of Marx and Engels and the early socialists, the question arises--that we need our own political representation. The capitalist class, the old feudal classes all have theirs. We need a way to politically represent ourselves.

That was the initial assumption of all Marxists--the need to have a political representation of the working class. Broadly speaking, the view of the party was of an all-encompassing working- class party, which brought together different factions, different groupings of the working-class movement.

In part, this is because the early working-class movement was not dominated with one single political ideology. People may have read that at one stage, Karl Marx said I am not a Marxist. That was to reject some would-be followers who interpreted his views in a particular way, and created political organizations that had nothing to do, as Marx and Engels saw it, with the direction they wanted the movement to go.

Marx himself had placed some emphasis on the attempt to build political organization. But you were talking about a period of the rise of capitalist social relations, and therefore, in large part, the bulk of Marx's own personal activity lay in developing theory rather than political organization.

Engels participated much more effectively in the construction of the Second International and played a formative role in the construction of what was to be the model socialist organization of the day--the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), an organization that produced, after a period of illegality, dozens of newspapers, a mass membership, elected officials. The SPD was led by a man called Karl Kautsky who was described at the time as the Pope of Marxism--that was supposed to be a good thing as opposed a negative thing.

You have political organizations that saw themselves as representing the entirety of the working class, which contended for political office, had political representation, led the trade unions and many of the civic associations. This is the rise of the early social-democratic party--right across Europe, a massive phenomenon. Different countries, different strengths, other countries, certain weaknesses--but this was the model of socialist organization, and with it, you had the appearance of a united socialist movement internationally, under the Second International.

Many people who look back at this and think that Lenin was an early heretic. They look at the short pamphlet Lenin wrote called What Is to Be Done? and say that this is the epitome of everything that's wrong with Leninism--pointing to the fact that instead of the broad model of organization, Lenin insisted on professional party organization, a strict hierarchy and centralism, although when possible, the democratic component being instituted.

The reality is much different. The reality is that Lenin's views on the party in the first instance were highly conditional to the specific circumstances under which socialists were operating in Russia. Thus, at the formative conference of the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1898, something like two-thirds of the delegates were arrested by the police. So the conditions upon which you organize an open democratic party are somewhat different than they would be in others.

What people characterize as Leninism was conditional to illegal conditions inside Russia. The main difference was conditional on the objective circumstances Lenin saw, and those should not be seen as Leninism--illegality, professional revolutionism, that only the committee above another committee can instruct what people should do.

I'm not saying that Lenin was identical to Kautsky. You can go back and read Kautsky, for example, where he says clearly in the period of the late 1800s that the German Social Democratic Party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. In other words, we're a party that seeks the transformation of society, but we're not about to make a revolution.

Lenin insisted always on the revolutionary character of the Bolsheviks, in part because they operated under Tsarism and in part because of events after the writing of What Is To Be Done?

THE CRITICAL event that divides out the socialist movement and has bearing on the question of organization is, of course, the First World War. On August 4, 1914, the main pillar of social democracy, the German SPD, votes for war credits, with the exception of Karl Leibknecht, and the rest of the socialist movement in other countries follows suit.

At this point, Lenin begins to develop ideas about organization which I think are much more important and relevant to us--focused not on the question of illegality and professional revolutionism and so on.

Instead, he focuses on the idea that there is a built-in contradiction between building a political organization that combats capitalism and one that from the outset represents the entire working class.

He concludes that you have to begin by grouping together militants and activists--because we're not talking here about commentators and writers, but people who are involved in the actual struggle against capitalism--into a party that can lead politically other sections of the working-class movement through the ebbs and flow of the working-class struggle.

He used the term vanguard for this, to mean people who are in advance in consciousness--that is, who are enemies of capitalism, rather than half opposed and half accepting. This isn't an insult--it's the reality for most people, that they hate the system, but don't know what else you can put in its place.

The point was how to put together a political organization that in reality represented the best fighters of the working-class movement.

That idea became enshrined into the history of the revolutionary movement for one reason--it wasn't Lenin's writings so much as Lenin's doing. The Russian Revolution was the first successful revolution. In terrible conditions, it brought a weak working-class movement to power, and it laid open the question of working-class power internationally.

And from that experience, the main principles of working-class organization were codified, and an attempt was made to generalize these internationally.

The problem begins not there, but with the defeat of the Russian Revolution. Because with the defeat of the Russian Revolution, instead of codifying the actual real experiences of both Russia and an understanding of the particular national conditions of different movements, which Lenin always insisted on, what's codified is an idea of a world centralized party dominated by the Central Committee and the Politburo of the USSR, under which function the central committees of other countries, and that's the world movement of socialism.

In Lenin's day, you had the Bolshevik Party taking a position hostile to the workers' councils when they first arose in 1905--there's a revolution outside of the Bolshevik Party, they're suspicious of it, they say we don't support it, and then they have to switch.

In other words, the vanguard isn't always right. That's an idea that develops later--that all thought comes out of the Comintern.

WHY IS all this relevant? Because that became the understanding internationally of what it meant to build a revolutionary socialist or communist party. It became the principle model about which the revolutionary left that re-emerged in the 1960s debated and from which different elements were taken.

A small minority of the movement--we would argue, in large part, the Trotskyist elements in the movement, but not solely the Trotskyist elements--began to look toward the original Lenin rather than the Stalinized Lenin for the ideas of the party.

In my estimation and in the estimation of our tendency, the experience of the revolutionary left of the 1960s took years to sort through what I briefly sketched out.

Out of the initial upsurge, many people took wholesale some of the ideas of Stalinized Leninism and applied them. It led to all kinds of peculiarities, not the least of which was the cult of personality, most obviously in the Stalinist movement and in the Mao-influenced section of the revolutionary movement.

You had a situation in which revolutionary parties emerged quite differently from the situation I described earlier. By and large, in most of the Western countries in which the revolutionary left developed, it didn't emerge out of a mass workers' movement that represented the working class, but largely among elements wholly outside the existing organized working-class movement.

That's different from country to country. In the United States, you had one of the most extreme divorces between socialists and the working-class movement. In some countries like Britain and other places, there wasn't the same kind of distorting impact.

But internationally, you had the whole movement dealing with the fact that, first of all, the authentic Marxist tradition on the question of organization had been Stalinized and distorted by the experience of Stalinism, but also with reality of capitalism.

That is, it wasn't simply that the left had the wrong idea, and that's why it screwed up in the 1960s and '70s. It inherited the ideas that came before them and was trying to work its way through them, but it's also the case that capitalism fought back, and the left was unable to reestablish the relationship with a mass working-class movement in time.

Today, there is an idea that the construction of a socialist organization is in itself a flawed project. In short, it's been there, done that--we tried it in the 1960s and '70s, and this model of organization doesn't work.

I think that there's a reaction that we can sometimes have to say you just did it wrong--which is a good answer to a been-there-done-that kind of remark.

But I think the more sophisticated answer would be that not only did the left in the 1960s inherit models of organization from the past, but it was itself dislodged from its historic role and placed outside of the working-class movement. And this is despite valiant efforts of many sections of the left to reconnect with the working class, which should be applauded, not derided.

I WANT to start to draw a number of conclusions from what I laid out.

First, in the 1960s, you had the dominance internationally of the left by big Communist Parties and big social-democratic parties--that was what was seen as the opposition to capitalism. We might have said that this wasn't the kind of opposition we would organize, it doesn't do anything right, but those organizations were the main pillars of opposition.

Today, part of the weakness of the left is that those organizations don't exist as organizations that resist capitalism.

Social democracy exists, but basically, around the world, it has adopted neoliberalism and pro-capitalism outright as its program. The Communist Parties don't exist as the force that they once did, which means that in communities, in neighborhoods, in particular struggles, a number of people who were there before aren't there now.

This leads to a conclusion that there is a space politically for a party that is not revolutionary--that doesn't have the overthrow of capitalism as its aim. There is a political vacuum that exists internationally, which people are seeking to fill. But I would suggest that it isn't automatic that it would be filled in the manner that people seek to fill it.

It's one thing to say that social democracy has moved right and adopted neoliberalism, and Stalinism has largely disappeared organizationally, and in that space, we can build a broad, anticapitalist, but not necessarily revolutionary, movement. That is being proposed in a number of situations, and I believe it's an argument that we need to be friendly toward, because it's people trying to regroup forces opposed to the system.

But it isn't clear to me at all on an international scale what this means in reality. The main activists involved in this kind of project internationally are themselves members of revolutionary organizations, or are largely inspired by the project of building a revolutionary organization against capitalism.

The goal is to try to capture some of the dissension and the anger that exists against the system, but which is unorganized. Nobody should denigrate this opposition outside the system that's unorganized.

But I believe that in terms of an understanding of what it means to build organization, the main thing that's been lost is how you actually begin the process of the retraining, reeducating and re-launching of a revolutionary cadre, no matter what the organizational structure. How do you take a new generation of people and transform them from isolated or individual militants against the system to what is a self-conscious revolutionary cadre.

That really is the main task that we see the ISO as undertaking. The road to get from where we are now and where we want to get is the multimillion-dollar question. What kind of party do we want? I could have answered at the beginning--we want a revolutionary party of some size rooted in the working class that's multiracial, multi-ethnic and geared to the conquest of state power and internationally.

The problem is that this isn't what we are now, and we have to look at the rest of the left in this country and internationally and say truthfully what our numbers and our strengths are collectively. It is not the case that we are at the point where we're talking about a mass party.

Therefore, the real question is how you get from here to there. That's the most difficult thing to do, because there's not just one path to getting there, but having said that, not all the paths are of equal value.

For example, in my estimation, there isn't much space for a broad, anti-capitalist party in the United States. On the other hand, in Brazil, there is space for a large anti-capitalist, socialist party that has been expelled from the Workers Party (PT).

The experience there is that the best of the Brazilian left builds the PT and is now finding that its aspirations, hopes and ambitions are being opposed by the leadership of the party it created. They're being expelled, and at the moment, the main party formed out of that expulsion is polling anywhere from 7 to 11 percent against Lula in the polls. So there's not only a space for that kind of organization, but a reality.

The problem for us in this country is that we don't have that kind of left. Everybody talks about regroupment of the left, but the reality of who that left is, what it would actually mean to regroup, whether you could actually gain forward momentum, or if you would be mired in a series of endless discussions and debates--these are some of the questions that affect us.

We believe that the main task for us is to be sure as an organization that we are involved and develop links and relations with every sector possible in the struggle against capitalism, racism, militarism, sexism--to be an organization with not just commentary or criticism on struggles, but one that places itself fully in solidarity with and involvement in those struggles.

It's impossible for an organization of our size to do everything, but it is possible to ally ourselves with or solidarize with every struggle--even as we have priorities about what we believe we can best contribute to.

Second, the most critical aspect of the ISO beyond our general political outlook is the fact that we have an organization that's young and active--and that also needs to be educated in the traditions, the language, and in the theory and the practice of the past.

We want people in this organization themselves to be leaders in the mass movement, and to do so, you can't simply be an activist. You've got to have some grasp of politics, of theory--which is why we put a high premium on that.

Third, we believe one of our tasks is to grow and grow substantially, and we don't see any contradiction between that and what I've previously said--to be involved in every struggle. Many people will say that we recruit out of struggles. But the essential idea that a political organization and a party needs to grow is something that we can defend.

We can also defend another notion--it has to be a party that is explicit about its radical nature and about the character of its project.

I ended with those few points because I think that one of the weaknesses of the left coming out of the 1960s has been a de-emphasis of politics and theory, which the radical movement in the United States has always had. Most people want political discussion and political theory.

Secondly, there has been a tendency to think that being an open socialist is something that is impossible to build around in the United States. I would venture that the opposite has been the case.

When we parted way with some comrades some years ago in the 1970s--actually at the peak of the movement--there was a decision to make. One choice was to retreat from the project of building a directly working-class organization through emphasis on labor work, because the ground wasn't fertile, and instead build an organization that is committed to working-class power, but in the main looks toward youth and students.

That was one of the debates between ourselves and comrades in the International Socialists some years ago. I have to say that 30 years after the process, it is undoubtedly the case that comrades in the IS and Labor Notes have done extremely good work in the labor movement. But from the point of view of the project of Leninism--of building the seeds of a socialist organization committed to the transformation of society--we have made a contribution which has at least kept together that potential.

With a coming radicalization, our organization will really be put to the test. We have not, as of yet, accomplished the heights. Surviving this period has been quite an accomplishment. But the real accomplishment is proving your relevance in the struggle, and I believe that we are at the stage in which we have the constituent elements of an organization that can--over time, and with others--become the kind of party we look to.

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